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By Andrea Davis on June 15, 2016
Hamilton County’s population growth started decades ago, as residents looking for an alternative to city life discovered the sleepy suburbs just north of Indianapolis’ 96th Street. But what started as a string of bedroom communities has evolved into much more—thriving cities in their own right, each striving to create its own sense of place.

The key to their continued success, ironically enough, may just be leaders’ decisions to put the brakes on low-density sprawl in favor of more strategic, urban development patterns. In fact, portions of Carmel and Fishers are among seven neighborhoods in the Indianapolis metro area that researchers have identified as regionally significant “walkable urban places,” or WalkUPs.

These densely developed areas are desirable for may reasons, not the least of which is that they tend to command higher rent per square foot than car-dependent suburban properties. WalkUPs also tend to have more highly educated workers, which could result in other perks.

Creating attractive and connected places where educated workers want to live is also one of the priorities identified in the Indianapolis region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), a growth plan assembled by a coalition of business and civic leaders, elected officials and economic development professionals from throughout the metro area.

“From an economic development view, it’s crucial to build walkable urban places,” said Christopher B. Leinberger, a land-use strategist, researcher and author who addressed the topic at a OneZone Commerce luncheon in Carmel on June 8. A much as 90 percent of future development is expected to fall into that category, he said.

Leinberger is co-author of 2016 Foot Traffic Ahead, a report from the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University’s School of Business that looks at walkability in the country’s 30 largest metropolitan areas. Researchers also evaluated the Indianapolis region at the request of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

By definition, WalkUPs are defined areas with at least 1.4 million square feet of office space and/or at least 340,000 square feet of retail space, with a Walk Score® rating of 70 or higher. (Learn more about Walk Score.)

The GW researchers identified seven existing WalkUPs in the Indianapolis area:
  • Downtown Indianapolis
  • Fountain Square
  • Irvington
  • Meridian Kessler
  • Broad Ripple
  • Carmel Arts & Design District
  • Downtown Fishers
Leinberger was not surprised by parts of Carmel and Fishers making the list, citing a broader trend toward urbanizing suburbs. Nearly half of the WalkUPs in the Washington, D.C., area are in suburbs, he said.

Although the Courthouse Square in downtown Noblesville is considered “very walkable” with a Walk Score of 74, the office/retail density nearby isn’t high enough to qualify the area as a WalkUP.  

Researchers also examined housing costs, transportation costs and access to employment as a measure of “social justice.” They found that while housing costs for moderate-income households in the Indianapolis area are lower than almost all of the top metros, transportation expenses are among the highest. Access to employment also ranked in the bottom third of the pack.

Other Midwestern metros have similar challenges, Leinberger said, but the tide is beginning to turn in favor of communities that are embracing the WalkUPs trend.

“The greatest opportunity right now is urbanizing suburbs,” he said. “That will attract more educated workers to this region and put a foundation under your economy, similar to what drivable suburbs did in the 20th century.”

Leinberger said it is “absolutely critical” for the Indianapolis area to have a bus-rapid-transit system to improve employment access and lower transportation costs.

“If you don’t do it, other metros will, and they’re going to eat your lunch,” he said.

Indianapolis’ City-County Council voted last month to include a transit referendum on the November ballot, asking Marion County voters if they are willing to pay more income taxes to fund mass transit. In Hamilton County, the Clay Township and Washington Township boards are considering a similar ballot question. They are expected to make a decision late this month.
Categories: CEDS, "City of Carmel", "City of Fishers", "City of Noblesville", "Economic Development", "Quality of Life", Walkability